Covid response ‘one of UK’s worst ever public health failures’, inquiry finds

Bereaved families call for public inquiry to be brought forward after cross-party report

British families bereaved by coronavirus have called for a public inquiry to be brought forward after a cross-party group of MPs said the government’s handling of the pandemic was one of the country’s worst ever public health failings.

A report by two House of Commons committees said that the government’s fatalistic embrace of a herd immunity strategy at the start of the pandemic cost many thousands of lives.

The Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, made up of Conservative, Labour and SNP MPs, said the government’s containment approach involved trying to manage the spread of coronavirus through the population rather than to stop it spreading altogether.

"This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome, given that the United Kingdom had no firm prospect of a vaccine, limited testing capacity and there was a widespread view that the public would not accept a lockdown for a significant period," it said.

The MPs said other European countries took a similar approach but none suffered as heavy a death toll from coronavirus as Britain, where prime minister Boris Johnson delayed lockdowns in the spring and autumn of 2020.

Testing and tracing

Mr Johnson’s fatalistic approach was shared by his scientific advisers, some of whom publicly dismissed the value of testing and contact tracing, one of the key measures advocated by the World Health Organisation.

“This slow and gradualist approach was not inadvertent, nor did it reflect bureaucratic delay or disagreement between ministers and their advisers,” the report said.

“It was a deliberate policy – proposed by official scientific advisers and adopted by the governments of all of the nations of the UK. It is now clear that this was the wrong policy, and that it led to a higher initial death toll than would have resulted from a more emphatic early policy. In a pandemic spreading rapidly and exponentially, every week counted.”

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group criticised the report's focus on the decision-making process within government and its decision not to interview people who had lost family members to coronavirus. Spokeswoman Hannah Brady described the report as a slap in the face for bereaved families and said the public inquiry due to start next spring must have families at its centre.

“That is the only way that the serious questions, like why families were told their loved ones were not fit for intensive care without medical assessment or advised by 111 to keep their loved ones at home even in their dying moments, or why there were even more deaths in care homes in the second wave than the first, will be answered,” she said.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government should apologise to bereaved families for its handling of the pandemic but cabinet office minister Stephen Barclay said decisions made early last year look different with the benefit of hindsight.

“There is an issue there of hindsight because, at the time of the first lockdown, the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case. And, therefore, there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact,” he said.